Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)

2 1/2 stars out of 4.

I wish I could say that my first ever Hammer film experience was as good as my childhood memory of it was.

(Wincing) It isn’t. Not really at all. Even with both Christopher Lee and the guiding hand of top Hammer director Terrence Fisher. The problem is one that invades all of the other sequels in this series: boredom.

Prince of Darkness opens with the conclusion of Horror of Dracula. Unfortunately this is truly the best part of the film, because not only is it a classic moment in cinema but because it is actually exciting in some way.

We are then introduced to four English travelers who just happen to be passing though nearby Dracula’s old castle some ten years later. They encounter a untypical abbot who advises them to stay clear of the castle. Of course they set out late the next day and are abandoned by their driver. A mysterious coach then appears and after climbing on, the four are kidnapped by the wild horses up to the castle.

Upon their arrival, their bags disappear and reappear already unpacked in rooms. Then they are shocked to discover the Castle’s butler, Klove, who informs them that his master informed him to always have the castle open for guests.

Well, uh, Kove, isn’t your master joining us for dinner?
No, sir. I’m afraid not.
Is he indisposed?
He’s dead.

This does not warn any of the four away (although Helen, the older woman is still deathly afraid of the place) and after settling in the older couple of the four hear a mysterious noise. The man goes down to investigate and is promptly dispatched by Klove. His body is then hoisted over Dracula’s tomb and Klove slits the corpse’s throat to bleed all over Dracula’s ashes. The resurrection of Dracula is so chillingly well done, that you wish the rest of the film was up the same standard.

The 90 minute runtime is so obviously sectioned into a three act structure that it becomes absolutely beyond tedious. Basically there’s The Old Dark House (1932) segment, Dracula is resurrected, people get away from the castle, Dracula comes for them and abducts the woman, there’s a mad chase to get the woman back and ultimately Dracula is destroyed.  (yet again.) There are admittedly a few moments of interest, such as the vampire’s attempts to get into a monastery when he is uninvited. (For a vampire cannot cross the threshold unless invited by someone upon the inside.) A tidbit from Stoker’s novel appears when the Count makes a girl drink blood from his cut chest in order to bind her spirit to his will. Unfortunately none of these really add up to anything worthwhile. It becomes a bit like the later Universal horror films where you begin to ask why even keep watching?

The ending is really the reason to remain seated. Dracula is chased back to this castle. (Exactly as in Horror and nearly every other vampire film.) His coffin slides out onto the frozen moat outside the castle and he is about to be staked when the sun sets. Dracula erupts out of his coffin to attack the survivors when the thin ice begins to crack. The abbot standing nearby remembers a throwaway line he uttered earlier on about a vampire being able to be drowned by running water. (NOTE: this is entirely an invention of the screenwriter and really does not make any sense.) The abbot then shoots the ice and Dracula sinks into gaping hole into the freezing waters below his dying face drifting into the dark waters as the credits roll…

If you could simply cut together every resurrection and death scene of Dracula in these sequels, you would have a highly entertaining little anthology film. But you can’t and thus must wade through the increasingly monotonous and creaky plots to get to only a few minutes of Christopher Lee standing in a corner and occasionally biting someone. (But even Lee doing this is mesmerizing. A truly brilliant and underrated actor.)

Prince of Darkness was filmed in the 60’s mainstay Techniscope which was the poor man’s way of making an anamorphic 2.35:1 image. This was achieved by squeezing two 2.35:1 frames onto a single film frame, effectively cutting your costs in half. Many famous films from this period were photographed using this process (most notably the Sergio Leone Westerns) and they all share a unique color palette (full of earthy tones-browns, dull reds, yellows etc.) and a very heavy tight grain structure. Unfortunately, all of the downfalls of Techniscope appear in D:PoD and ultimately it never looks that impressive as a result.

The big question is the long wait between sequels? There are some six years separating D:PoD from Brides of Dracula, but no discernible reason why the studio would refrain from another film starring one of its biggest moneymakers. Judging from the general messiness and lackluster feel of this entry, it was simply because they couldn’t think of what to do with the Count.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness is ultimately not good or bad. It is merely passable. A few interesting moments, visually striking innovative climax and as always a fine performance from Lee are not enough to save a dragging story.

Collecting the Hammer films or even trying to rent them has never been easy. Different studios distributed each new title, so the sorting out the video distribution rights is a nightmare. The only US release of PoD was the Anchor Bay DVD (also re-released as a double feature with The Satanic Rites of Dracula.) It is ultimately a port of their 1997 Laserdisc release and is very unimpressive in this day and age. The source is a well preserved 35mm print but since the transfer was originally for Laserdisc, the image is not well presented. The film comes out very dark and non-detailed and adding to this already unlikable presentation, the 2.35:1 is Letterboxed non-anamorphic. There is a commentary however that is merely Lee and some of the other surviving stars reminiscing over tea. I really can’t recommend this DVD issue, seeing as there are excellent Region 2 versions of this and other Hammer films, but unfortunately those suffer from the 4% PAL speedup and you must have both a region free player and pay the import costs.

To compound this, all of the Anchor Bay releases went out of print years ago. This disc now fetches premium prices on ebay. Pick it up only if interested and available cheaply.

EDIT: It appears that the single film release is available on Amazon as a manufactured-on-demand DVD-R. Unfortunately it isn’t a new transfer.


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Filed under 2.5 stars, Film, Film Review, Hammer Films

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